Not just one or two but nine female students of the School of Life Sciences (SLS) under Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi have accused their Professor Atul Kumar Johri of sexual harassment over the years.
It all started when a female student from SLS went missing on March 12. She was later found on March 15 at her relative’s home. She eventually filed a complaint to the police. However, before she went ‘missing’, she had written an email to Prof. Johri and copied it to several stakeholders of the school in which she had called him a “characterless person”.
She wrote in her email, “I am leaving your so-called prestigious lab just because you are a characterless person and you do not have manners, how to talk to girls and you have a particular pattern by which you make every girl feel that she is worthless and you are a kind of Baba of Life Sciences, so hard luck.”
Her email triggered a chain of allegations and eight more girl students filed complaints against him. All the complainants are PhD scholars and they allege that harassment happened over the last seven years. The police eventually accepted the FIR against him on Thursday.
In their complaint, the students alleged that Johri would often demand sexual favours and pass lewd remarks about the “figures” of women students. They also alleged that if they objected, he would threaten to ruin their PhD theses and careers. A statement issued by the female students of SLS mentioned, “The professor often makes sexually-coloured remarks, open demands for sex and comments on the figure of almost every girl. If a girl objects, he holds a grudge against her”.
Every section of the university is up in arms against Johri. They have demanded his immediate suspension. The JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) has also asked for his immediate arrest as he has been booked under Section 354, which is a non-bailable section, as well as Section 509.
While the professor has resigned from two administrative posts, no action has been taken against him by the administration as he is considered “very close” to the Vice Chancellor (VC). Prof. Johri denied the allegations and said that these are “mala fide” and were raised just because he sent an email to the students asking them to be present at the lab.
Last Friday, students protesting outside the administrative building got agitated when they learnt that officials of the university have taken six complainants to meet the VC. But the complainants refused to budge.
One of the complainants later said, “We were asked to show evidences against Prof. Johri but we refused to do so because a police case had already been registered and the matter is sub-judice now. We were also asked to take up the matter with the university’s Internal Complaints Committee, but we refused that proposal too as we have no trust in the committee.”
The question persists though. Under what rules and procedures is the University administration asking the complainants to furnish evidences to back up their registered FIR? As the law stands, investigations into workplace sexual harassments can be done only by the anti-sexual harassment bodies and/ or by the police – the administration has no role in the investigations and cannot demand evidences.
Gender Sensitisation Committee vs. Internal Complaints Committee
In 1997, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgement in the Vishakha vs. The State of Rajasthan case made it mandatory for all institutions, private or government, to have a committee to look into the cases of sexual harassment known as the Vishakha Guidelines. It was the first enforceable civil law guidelines on the rights of women to be free from violence and harassment in both public and private employment.
JNU students and teachers had campaigned since 1996 for a similar committee and their efforts backed by the Vishakha Judgement resulted in the setting up of the Gender Sensitization Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH). It had elected representatives from all sections of the university, students, teachers, non-teaching staff as well as outside representatives from NGOs and lawyers. The JNU GSCASH had been hailed as one of the best practices in the country even by the UGC SAKSHAM Task Force that had been tasked with recommending safety measures for women students on campuses.
But last September, the JNU administration dissolved GSCASH and replaced it with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). The students and teachers at the university protested against the order and moved the Delhi High Court. The matter is still being looked into by the court.
Kavita Krishnan, a leading women’s rights activist and the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), said, “JNU dismantled the GSCASH and replaced it with the puppet ICC. But now, the administration is not even following the rules set down in its own ICC, which mandates that the ICC and University administration must support complainants who approach the police in sexual harassment matters. Instead, the administration is yet to admit that FIRs of sexual harassment have been filed by nine women students, calling them “grievances” instead. And while the ICC rules call for suspension of the accused professor pending enquiry to ensure that he has no power over the complainants, the University has not yet suspended Prof. Johri. Instead, the VC and administrators are shamefully silent as Prof. Johri and his social media supporters openly brand the complainants as liars and spread rumours to discredit them.”
In the absence of GSCASH, the students are citing the rules of ICC to the administration, asking it to act. ICC rules say the following:
- Restrain the respondent from reporting or evaluating the work or performance or tests or examinations of the complainant.
- Ensure that offenders are warned to keep a distance from the aggrieved and wherever necessary, if there is a definite threat, restrain their entry into the campus.
- Take strict measures to provide a conducive environment of safety and protection to the complainant against retaliation and victimisation as a consequence of making a complaint of sexual harassment.
These rules imply that Prof. Johri must be suspended and kept out of bounds of SLS and the University to ensure that he cannot exert pressure on or intimidate complainants or witnesses.
The Bigger Malaise
While this case in JNU has caught the media attention, it has also brought to light the issue of sexual harassment faced by women students across the country at various universities and colleges. The anti-sexual harassment committees in most institutions were not found to be functioning well by the SAKSHAM Task Force.
The Banaras Hindu University (BHU) women students’ movement last year also highlighted how the GSCASH body in that University was not working to support complainants – who were instead subjected to victim-blaming, pressure to withdraw complaints and even remarks by the BHU VC that they were “selling their honour in the market”.
Geeta, the president of JNUSU, said, “We had a brilliant institution like GSCASH to deal with issues of sexual harassment. Every institution must have that. Its responsibility is not just to enquire into the cases of sexual harassment but also conduct activities round the year to sensitise every section on gender issues. Our society is still a patriarchy and we all come from there and carry that mindset. That makes it more imperative that every institution, be it college or universities, must have such a committee in place whose recommendations must be binding on the institutions. Committees that are not independent and impartial are no solution.”
In 2013, the parliament passed a law by the name of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. It was meant to protect women from sexual harassment at their places of work. This statute superseded the Vishakha Guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment, introduced by the Supreme Court of India. The law says that any place with more than 10 employees need to implement it. However, according to a study done by the FICCI-EY in November 2015, 36 percent of the Indian companies and 25 percent amongst the MNCs are not compliant with the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013.
The act used the definition of sexual harassment laid down by the Supreme Court in the Vishakha case. Article 19 (1) (g) of the constitution recognizes the right of every citizen to be employed in any profession of their choosing. The Supreme Court recognized it in its judgment that “actions resulting in a violation of one’s rights to ‘Gender Equality’ and ‘Life and Liberty’ are in fact a violation of the victim’s fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (g)”. This act is also applicable to schools, colleges and universities.
Such a committee is desirable in every institution where a woman student can go without any fear or hesitation with her complaint, as such a committee would be sensitive enough to listen and act on their complaint in contrast to an administration, which is likely to protect influential accused, and seek to silence complainants – as was seen at BHU and now also at JNU. A person in a position of power can intimidate the complainant. In the case of Prof. Johri, he is the master of the lab and if complainants go there, as the students and teachers are saying, he might use his power to silence them.
The question arises as to why the JNU administration is so reluctant to acknowledge the complaints of sexual harassment, offer support to the complainants and suspend Prof. Johri pending enquiry as per its own set of rules.
A statement from the JNUSU read thus, “Today, after the JNU community exerted extreme pressure, the Delhi Police registered separate FIRs for all the complainants against Prof. Atul Johri. Statements of four complainants were recorded today and the rest will be done tomorrow. But at the same time, the Delhi Police postponed the recording of Prof. Atul Johri’s statement till tomorrow. This could have been done today itself with the statements of four complainants already recorded. We believe this postponement is being done to delay his recording and give him more time. Since, now the FIRs have been registered, he should be interrogated in custody and not given time to protect himself. By giving him more time, the Delhi Police is actively protecting him.”
Like the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’ movements internationally, the movements of women students of BHU and JNU and other Universities against sexual harassment is a sign that the days of impunity for sexual harassers is about to end.
Reporting by Kumar Dhananjay Editorial Consultant, Delhi